Obama calls for more ice­break­ers de­spite lack of funds

Rus­sia makes new claims on Arc­tic

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY ROWAN SCAR­BOR­OUGH

Pres­i­dent Obama’s ur­gent call to con­struct a new fleet of heavy Coast Guard ice­break­ers to mon­i­tor the con­tested Arc­tic is be­lied by his re­cent bud­gets that slashed fund­ing for even one new ship.

Mr. Obama, in a game of po­lar ice chess with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin and his 40-plus ice­break­ers, made the gap one of his themes as he toured Alaska last week. Of­fi­cials say the U.S. needs to keep pace in the face of an in­creas­ingly se­ri­ous chal­lenge by Rus­sia, which is mak­ing new ter­ri­to­rial claims on the Arc­tic.

But even by the White House’s own in­ter­nal pro­jec­tions, one new ship would not en­ter ser­vice for another decade, not in time to take over for the na­tion’s only re­main­ing heavy ice breaker now in its last years of use.

By next decade the U.S. will have no heavy ice breaker, while ex­pan­sion-minded Rus­sia, with a con­sid­er­ably larger Arc­tic bor­der, owns six nu­clear-pow­ered ice break­ers — four of which are op­er­a­tional and 40 over­all.

Both in 2014 and this year, the Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity slashed spend­ing by 73 per­cent to plan for just one more ice­breaker, much less a new fleet. Next year’s fis­cal 2016 bud­get cuts that fund­ing even more, from $230 mil­lion to $166 mil­lion.

The cur­rent bud­get does “not state when a con­struc­tion con­tract for the ship might be awarded, cre­at­ing un­cer­tainty about the tim­ing of the pro­ject,” says a new re­port by the Con­gres­sional Re­search Ser­vice.

White House in­ter­nal plans are to buy a new $1 bil­lion ship by 2020, mean­ing it would not en­ter ser­vice for another five years. As for a new fleet, there is no timetable.

Ron­ald O’Rourke, CRS’s naval ex­pert, said the U.S.’ only op­er­a­tional heavy ice breaker, the Po­lar Star, is nearly 40 years old. With­out a new re­fur­bish­ing, the ship will be de­ac­ti­vated in the 2019-22 time frame. This means the White House sched­ule would leave the na­tion with­out any heavy ice­break­ers for two to six years.

A sec­ond heavy ice­breaker, the 1970s Po­lar Sea, sits in­ac­tive. Years of crush­ing 6-foot-deep ice left its en­gine in­ca­pac­i­tated.

The Coast Guard also owns a third ship con­sid­ered a medium po­lar ice­breaker. The Healy can punch through about four feet of ice.

The Arc­tic has grown in strate­gic sig­nif­i­cance the past decade as Rus­sia Pres­i­dent Putin has made claims on new ter­ri­tory and in­creased po­lar oper­a­tions. The Arc­tic is made up of ice and wa­ter­ways owned by five na­tions, in­clud­ing the U.S. and Rus­sia.

James Rus­sell, an in­struc­tor at the Naval Post­grad­u­ate School, said mod­ern­iz­ing some­thing as ba­sic as ice­break­ers is im­por­tant when deal­ing with Mr. Putin.

“It’s im­por­tant for the United States to demon­strate that it is not go­ing to put up with Putin’s petty po­lit­i­cal ges­tures in places like the Arc­tic, an area of im­por­tance to us and our vi­tal ally in Canada,” he said. “We must stand with our al­lies and part­ners and push back in parts of the world where it makes sense. Putin has be­come an in­ter­na­tional rogue.”

The Coast Guard is man­dated by law to carry out a num­ber of mis­sions there, the CRS re­port says. They in­clude:

Sup­port­ing re­search.

Mon­i­tor­ing U.S. ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters and spy­ing on sea traf­fic north of Alaska.

Con­duct­ing tra­di­tional Coast Guard oper­a­tions such as law en­force­ment and search and res­cue.

As sea ice melts, the re­gion is be­com­ing more ac­ces­si­ble to ships in in­ter­na­tional wa­ters and more sus­cep­ti­ble to de­mands for its nat­u­ral re­sources.

“Although po­lar ice is di­min­ish­ing due to cli­mate change, observers gen­er­ally ex­pect that this de­vel­op­ment will not elim­i­nate the need for U.S. po­lar ice­break­ers, and in some re­spects might in­crease mis­sion de­mands for them,” the CRS re­port said. “Even with the di­min­ish­ment of po­lar ice, there are still sig­nif­i­cant ice­cov­ered ar­eas in the po­lar re­gions.”

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion in 2013 re­leased a pol­icy pa­per called a “Na­tional Strat­egy for the Arc­tic Re­gion.”

“We seek an Arc­tic re­gion that is sta­ble and free of con­flict, where na­tions act re­spon­si­bly in a spirit of trust and co­op­er­a­tion, and where eco­nomic and energy re­sources are de­vel­oped in a sus­tain­able man­ner that also re­spects the frag­ile en­vi­ron­ment and the in­ter­ests and cul­tures of in­dige­nous peo­ples,” the pa­per said.


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